Part 2: Fixing The Problem
Essay 23 – The Key is Federalism
“The States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore…never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market.”
– Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge William Johnson, June 12, 1823
There were many disagreements and heated debates between different factions of our founders. But there was one area where they all seemed to emphatically agree – the importance of maintaining a proper balance and separation of powers through federalism.
Federalism is the idea that powers will be separated between different levels of government. The federal government would be granted only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution such as our national defense, foreign affairs, to develop and control a standard, uniform currency, to create a post office and roads, and to regulate commerce between the states. All other powers are to be left to the States and/or to the people.
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
– James Madison, Federalist 45
The founders well understood that the only way a country as diverse and as expansive as ours could possibly work as a self-governing republic, would be if the vast majority of power was kept as close to the people as possible. There were just too many differences in cultures, beliefs, ideas, and values from one area to another in order for a far-away, centralized, one-size-fits-all government to be able to make all of the decisions.
The only way for this to work, they realized, was to allow each State and the people within them, to decide all of the laws that would most likely affect their daily lives. This allowed for people to live and work and pursue their own happiness within a state that most aligned with their own beliefs and values. The average person would rarely have to concern themselves with the workings of the federal government.
At the time the founders were deliberating all of this, when they concluded that the population and expanse of the country was too large for a centralized government to have consolidated power, the population was only about 3.9 million (about the current population of Los Angeles, CA), according to the fist census conducted in 1790. And there were only 13 states.
How do you think they would feel about our current situation, with 50 states and about 325 million people?
Government closest to the people best represents the will of the people.
With that type of structure, different decisions will be made by different states and the people within those states. As it should be.
We have an extremely wide and diverse country where people have different values, ideas, and cultures. People in Iowa have a different way of life and worldview than people in California which are different yet in Texas and again in Massachusetts. The Founders recognized that in order to maintain for the people true liberty, to pursue their own happiness in whatever way they see fit, it was imperative to keep most of the decision-making within the state level.
States would then be free to experiment with different solutions to problems, create laws which reflected their own values, and live in harmony with other like-minded people.
States could learn from each other on what worked best and adapt for the better. If people didn’t like how a particular state handled things, they were free to “vote with their feet” and move to a more like-minded state. That free flow of people and businesses would promote positive competition so that there is always the incentive to improve.
With today’s nearly all-powerful, centralized federal government, we have lost all of that. States are increasingly less differentiated in that soon the only useful purpose of state borders would be to determine which football team to support.
With one-size-fits-all laws and regulations, if you don’t like what’s going on in your state, we are losing the ability to move to another state that is more to our liking. We still have some of that with such things as state tax policies, but with each decade that goes by, more and more blending occurs. All this does is create a situation where nobody is really happy, constant friction occurs, resentments build, and tranquility is lost.
How to fix it…
I believe it’s time that we change the argument. We need to come to terms that we simply will not change each others’ minds about controversial issues. People, since the dawn of man, have had different opinions, thoughts, ideas, values, and beliefs and that is not going to change.
Our Constitution and our republic was set up to allow for those differences and the liberty that goes with them. We cannot dictate or legislate a single set of values to a diverse people of nearly 325,000,000. History and experience of mankind tells us that ends in failure.
The best we can do is create a system that provides people the opportunity to enjoy as much liberty as possible while protecting everyone’s natural rights of life, liberty, and property.
The centralized, consolidated power that has been unconstitutionally obtained and abused by the federal government and all of the friction and loss of tranquility it causes is the problem. I won’t go into all of the causes and details of all of the issues involved here, but I think everyone can agree that there is definitely a problem in Washington, DC. A big problem.
When all of this power is concentrated in one centralized place, it not only attracts the wrong type of people to run for office, but also attracts the special interest, crony-capitalist, favor-peddling corruption that we all abhor.
If we want to get the big money influence out of Washington, we have to take the power out of Washington and give it back to the states. Will that solve all of the corruption problems? No, because men, not being angels, are corruptible beings. They always have been and always will be. However, by spreading out and separating those powers, it minimizes the problems as much as humanly possible. We essentially divide and conquer the corruption. And where they do attempt it, it’s much easier to monitor and control the closer it gets to the people.
Having mentioned this issue in many of the previous essays, you shouldn’t be surprised that I believe one of the most important things we can do to restore the proper balance of federalism is to restore the Senate back to the body and purpose that it was originally designed for – to act as the voice of the States within the federal government. In order to do this, it would begin with repealing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and give the power of selecting our Senators back to the State legislatures. I’ll discuss more about this is future essays.
I’ll end this topic with one last quote:
“While the Constitution continues to be read, and its principles known, the states must, by every rational man, be considered as essential component parts of the union; and therefore the idea of sacrificing the former to the latter is totally inadmissible.”
– Alexander Hamilton, speech at the New York Ratifying Convention, June 24, 1788
About this series:
The People Are Sovereign! is a series of 30 essays that will be posted on a daily basis. The series will continue tomorrow with Essay 24 – The Legislative Revisited
To view the previous essay in the series, click this link: Essay 22- Educating the People
To view the next essay in the series, click this link: Essay 24- The Legislative Revisited